Light years away

…—… SOS © Bruce Munro 2015, Waddesdon Manor photographer Mark Pickthall

 

Fittingly, I’ve book-ended the Bruce Munro installations at Waddesdon Manor, visiting only the first and last years of his exhibitions, since a ‘proper job’ meant I was unable to get to the intervening open evenings. And so it was a pleasure to accept this latest invitation to see the paths his dreams in light have taken.
Not for Bruce – not here – the comfort of ‘pretty’. In any case, illuminated alliums now hang in their thousands in municipal Christmas decorations across countless towns and cities and his installations represent so much more than lights in a shopping precinct. This year, 2015, Bruce seeks to capture the zeitgeist by questioning our consciences and the extent of our charity. *

“The effect is stunning… it halts you in haunted tracks”

If that seems an austere approach at Christmas, it isn’t – visually at least. Bruce’s ethereal, elegiac and engaging installation glows through the shrubbery and his sounds echo across the gardens like mythical sirens calling passers-by. But as you make your journey towards the sounds, the giant tree ferns lining the path loom through the darkness, their white winter fleeces looking for all the world like bandages wrapped around dreadful wounds. Once you’re standing alongside the site it is apparent the music is a series of segue-ways from pop to rock to opera, transmitting simultaneously from over 100 single-person tents, paying homage to the charity Shelterbox. The sound and light show lends the tents a disco feel, until without warning, the nylon canvasses shot through with the purple, blue and red are punctured alarmingly by white light accompanied by the ditditdit, dahdahdah, ditditdit of more than 100 SOS messages.

“The …–––… of more than 100 SOS messages”

This voyage of son et lumière, Bruce explains, has been inspired by the desire to couple his work with a specific charity and the teen memory of twiddling the dials on the radio to find a favourite station (he had to replicate some of the sounds with actors, since the BBC wouldn’t grant him a licence to use any original recordings). It’s all manufactured, of course. Anyone hovering around the same age as Bruce will remember not only the distant Morse code messages but the buzz of white noise and the seemingly meaningless repetitions of a five-note tune transmitting mournfully across the airwaves. But for all that the tents don’t house refugees, the effect is stunning nonetheless. It halts you in haunted tracks.
Get away from the crowds for a moment if you can, and take in the installation alone. For it is only when you stop that the sound of your own humanity cuts through life’s hubbub and Bruce’s brightly lit tents encourage your empathy for fellow humans.

SOS © Bruce Munro 2015
…—… SOS images © Bruce Munro 2015, Waddesdon Manor photographer Mark Pickthall

NB: Bruce Munro’s light installation is part of the Winter Light at Waddesdon Manor Christmas season running from Wednesday 11 November to Sunday 3 January (closed 24–26 December).
The seasonal decorations have been created in 20 rooms, including the Bachelors’ Wing, and around the manor’s exterior. Feature table settings, Christmas trees and room tableaux continue the theme of Lights & Legends, all with a backdrop of the matchless Rothschild Collection and the manor itself.

©National Trust Waddesdon Manor photo Mike Fear
©National Trust Waddesdon Manor photo Mike Fear

*If anyone cares to delve further into the history of the manor, during the Second World War, the Rothschilds moved into the Bachelors’ Wing, leaving the main house to children evacuated from London.

To find out more visit the Waddesdon Manor website.

In praise of the annual round robin family newsletter

It may be unfashionable to say so, but I like round robin Christmas letters. Not that I write one, you understand, but I do so love to receive them.

Lynne Truss’s six-part radio sketch, aired on Radio 4 in the run-up to the festive season, was a poke at proud parents who write gazettes detailing every last cough of their offspring’s year. She suggested replies ranging from the ironic sneer to the openly deranged communiqué to counter their authors’ enthusiasm and discourage unwanted repeat missives next year.

I’d feel cheated if I didn’t get half-a-dozen or so such letters before Christmas Day.

If you move house several times following a career you make new circles of friends around the country, or even the world, but that doesn’t mean the old friends should be forgotten. There are too few hours in the day, days in the year, to see them all, so an annual round-up of a year’s events helps me follow the friends I made at NCT classes; the friends I made when our children (now grown-up) went to nursery together whom I no longer see.

“We had tickets to Super Saturday – how lucky were we?”

I like to hear that Catherine has just been on tour with her University of Cambridge jazz group and Ashley is riding for Paul Schockemöhle. That Matt and Helen (an old schoolfriend) have bought a tandem and are cycling the 38 miles return into central London on a regular basis. I want to know that the family I once lift-shared the school run with, who have had a bumpy year, are getting over cancer (her) and a period of redundancy (him). There’s the odd boast, it’s true “We had tickets to Super Saturday – how lucky were we?” – but I don’t feel put out or envious, any more than I need to retaliate by penning a barbed reply.

Some friends are so aware that the round robin is now frowned upon that they open their letter with an apology and an invitation to let them know if it’s too boring and I wish to ‘opt out’ of future years’ missives.

I don’t. Facebook isn’t the same, Twitter can only reveal so much in Tweet and the telephone is too limiting. Send me a printed out (or even e-mailed) annual update and make me smile. Who knows, I might even compose one myself next year.

You can listen to Lynne Truss’s radio programmes here.

December update – Lights, Strictly Christmas and action

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I’ve been busy interviewing, writing and bringing up my (not very small) babies… and I’ve got the lurgy. Here’s a taster of what my diary has been filled with recently.

My daughter celebrated her 18th birthday last week. It’s true to say I have no idea where the time’s gone since she was born. It barely seems two years since I was asking myself how my son had reached 18. I can’t say I don’t feel my age since bits of me are creaking and, with the lurgy, croaking, but 18 years? Really? I’d better get used to the idea my baby is all grown up, however, she’s interviewing for a place to study medicine at various universities around the country – another pull on my time as well as hers.

The night before her interview at Liverpool University I whizzed along to Waddesdon to see the Christmas lights at the Manor. This is one of my favourite invitations of the year. Waddesdon Manor ‘s current series of Christmas themes is the great European cities settled in by the Rothschilds’ banking sons – last year was Frankfurt, this year, Paris. Waddesdon Manor really is magical any time, but with the bachelor’s wing specially decorated for Christmas (the planning takes months) and the trees outside spectacularly lit it’s well worth a visit. I went on the guided tour with an acquaintance who also happens to be the marketing director at another of the nation’s grand houses. I’m sure she won’t mind me mentioning she was more than a little wistful when she saw how beautiful the Manor’s Christmas decorations were, and she had to have two buns at the press tea to make up for it.

Galloping through to December I found myself interviewing Fern Britton (that’s the Ready Steady Cook Fern, not the other one, in case you’re one of those people who get Fearne Cotton and Fern Britton muddled). It required a quick turnaround with only a day’s notice. I was busy all morning and into the afternoon, but Fern and I arranged to meet at the Iain Rennie Hospice at Home office at 5pm – it’s a charity she’s supporting with her renewed enthusiasm for cycling. I sat in the car park waiting for a while, then knocked on the door and met up with the IRHH’s PR officer, Gemma.

As we made a cup of tea, Fern arrived and what struck me was her poise and elegance and down-to-earth entrance. She parked her little run around in the car park and skipped in from the rain. Everybody complimented her on her looks – she was glammed up thanks to the make-up artists at the BBC, where she’d spent the afternoon recording the trailer for Strictly Christmas. There was no mistaking the subtext in the comments – she’s lost stones in weight and every woman in the office noticed. Fern was candid enough to tell me about her battle with the bulge in the interview. I’ll post it here just as soon as it’s published.

Within days of interviewing Fern an e-mail inviting me to interview House of Commons Speaker John Bercow turned up in my in-box. I’ve been chasing this interview for several months, but with the election and his busy schedule there’s been no space in his diary for me. I always approach my interviewees with an open mind. That’s not to say I don’t read up on them before I meet them or I give them an easy time, but there’s also no point standing on the sidelines with an agenda and if you want a fair interview you have to be an impartial observer. I did ask John Bercow for his views about the HS2 Link (which will affect many of his constituents adversely) and question why there was such a furore over the omission of LibDem and Labour candidates from the Buckingham ballot paper last May. I hope my interviews give you the feeling you were in the room with us and that the questions I asked were those you wanted answered. You can let me know what you think of the interview when I’ve posted it, but in meantime it’s on hold for a couple of months until the magazine that is paying me for it can fit it in.

In the run-up to Christmas I’m writing an article for The English Home which has been fun, though with my lurgy flattening my senses, I’m feeling slightly worried about when I’m going to chase up all the loose ends. The deadline is next week.

It’s been a busy month, so I’ve had little time for fiction writing – I know there are people out there who say you should make time if you want to be a writer of fiction. I assume these people don’t have five children at home and have a living to earn and a household to run at the same time. Or maybe they have a wife. I have been working on Fallen, since my other fiction has taken a bit of a back seat at the moment. I have taken to reading a couple of light (if there is such a thing) crime novels while I get over my ‘flu-like lurgy. They’re not my usual thing, but I thought I ought to get a bit more of a handle on the genre if I’m writing what seems to be shaping up into a crime mystery sci-fi thriller. I’ll post the next instalment of Fallen soon, I promise.

In the meantime I wish you a Happy & Healthy Christmas. Now where’s my box of tissues?